Reading Matthew 8-9 in the Common English Bible

This series of posts explores my experience of reading through the New Testament of the Common English Bible, a new translation due out this year.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 8-9

One of the most controversial language choices in the CEB is to translate ho huios tou anthrōpou in the New Testament as “Human One” instead of “Son of Man”. There is a good explanation of the issues involved and the CEB rationale on the CEB blog. Here are the most important points:

  • The Hebrew phrases ben adam and ben enosh (and the Aramaic equivalents) simply mean “human being” or “human”, which is how they are translated in the CEB.
  • ho huios tou anthrōpou in the New Testament is a literal translation of this phrase. The KJV rendered this literally into English as “Son of Man,” which has been followed by most English translations.
  • The CEB is preferring instead to adopt a natural English equivalent of this phrase.
  • When Jesus uses this phrase for himself with reference to the figure of Daniel 7:13, CEB will use the title “Human One”.
  • Almost every English reader of the CEB notices this difference and many find it jarring.  Ironically, the problem seems to be that English speaking Christians associate “Son of Man” with Jesus’ divinity, rather than his humanity. Substituting “Human One” is thus perceived as an affront to the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity.

The problem people have with this seems to me to be another example of an English translation tradition trumping a reasonable alternative that attempts to  better represent the original languages in natural English rather than “biblish” or “church speak”. So what is more important, a readable English rendering of our sacred texts or the preservation of theologically laden phrases that have taken on a life of their own beyond the Bible?

What is more important, the original text or our traditional interpretations? The advantage of shaking up a traditional reading like “Son of God”—indeed, this is one of the best reasons for a fresh translation in general—is that it forces us to pay attention to things we have long taken for granted. It demands that we be mindful of the assumptions and presuppositions that are behind our understanding of biblical phrases.

In this case, if the CEB publishers are correct that many people have conflated “Son of Man” and “Son of God”, the church needs to rediscover the nuances of each. Especially when the church overemphasizes Jesus’ divinity, downplaying the importance of his humanity, “Human One” may contribute to our ongoing christological conversations.

To this end, it is worth noting the full context of the first appearance of “Human One” in Matthew 9:4-8 (emphasis mine).

4But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, “Why do you fill your minds with evil things? 5Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins” —he said to the man who was paralyzed— “Get up, take your cot, and go home.” 7The man got up and went home. 8When the crowds saw what had happened, they were afraid and praised God, who had given such authority to human beings.

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